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Aug162019

The Rebbe’s Archivist

In a rare interview, Rabbi Sholom Mendel Simpson, the Rebbe’s secretary, told Beis Moshiach among other things about his work in the Rebbe’s letter-archive and about publishing them in the Igros Kodesh

By Rabbi Sholom Yaakov Chazan •

In 5712, the Rebbe appointed Rabbi Sholom Mendel Simpson to be his secretary, and told him, “Your father is a baal sod, and then added with a smile, “and certainly you too will be a baal sod.”

Ever since, Reb Sholom Mendel has been working in the Rebbe’s secretariat. In a rare interview, portions of which we brought last week, Rabbi Simpson spoke about this special work. We continue here with several more portions:

WRITING RESPONSES TO THE LETTERS

The Rebbe opened every letter sent to him and after the Rebbe wrote a response to each one, he gave me some of the responses for me to type.  After I finished typing, I gave the Rebbe the letters and the Rebbe reviewed them, added to them and made corrections.  He often gave me the letter to retype and when the letter was ready, the Rebbe signed it.

“The letters the Rebbe dictated to the secretaries Rabbi Moshe Leib Rodstein and Rabbi Nissan Mindel a’h, were typed by them and then the Rebbe reviewed those letters. Often the Rebbe added handwritten additions to these typed letters and when there were many additions, the letter was retyped and then given back to the Rebbe for his signature.

“The letters were usually typed in triplicate with the original letter and copies given to the Rebbe.  The original was sent to the correspondent and one copy was for the archives of the Rebbe’s letters.  If the Rebbe added a handwritten note, he would mark the additions on the copy in the archives too.  When the corrections were made, the Rebbe gave two copies – one to be sent to the correspondent, the second to be put in the archives.  The third copy, which did not have the Rebbe’s additions and corrections, remained with the secretaries.”

RESPONSIBLE FOR THE REBBE’S Letter ARCHIVE

Since the early years of the Rebbe’s leadership, I have had the privilege of taking care of the Rebbe’s personal archive.  After the Rebbe’s letters were sent, I would put a copy in the archive.  I made great efforts to see to it that it was all orderly and indexed so that when I needed a certain letter I’d be able to locate it quickly.

“Over the years I put in a lot of work into arranging the archive and whenever I saw how pleased the Rebbe was by how quickly I was able to find a letter that he wanted, it encouraged me to continue maintaining the archives in meticulous order.”

Publishing the Igros Kodesh

Starting in 5747/1987, the Rebbe’s letters began to be published under the same title the previous Rebbeim’s letters were – Igros Kodesh.  As the archivist, Rabbi Simpson naturally played a role in this momentous project, which is still ongoing. Rabbi Simpson related how it came to be:

In the winter of 5747, R’ Zalman Chanin, director of the Vaad L’Hafotzas Sichos, asked me whether he could have copies of the Rebbe’s letters for printing as addenda to the [weekly]Likutei Sichos [pamplets].

“Until then, the members of the Vaad had used private collections but apparently they had used those up and since it had become customary to include letters related to the parsha in Likutei Sichos, R’ Chanin asked me for letters from the archive.

“I told him that I had no permission to remove letters from the archive but I would ask the Rebbe.  The Rebbe’s answer was: ‘On the contrary, if there is something in the archive, show me what we’re talking about.’

“I went to the archive and took out a file as a sample.  It was a file of letters from the year 5718.  When I brought it to the Rebbe, the Rebbe was pleased by the orderliness of the archive and since he saw that there was enough material for a series of sefarim, he said the material should be given to R’ Sholom Dovber Levin who had previously published a series of Igros Kodesh of the Rebbeim, so that he could begin printing the Rebbe’s letters.”

[At first he edited the series himself, and starting in 5752 he included the writer of this interview in the editing.]

Were there special instructions from the Rebbe regarding the letters that could be printed?

“Yes.  Before giving the letters to the editors of the series, the Rebbe told me not to publish letters regarding personal matters, and even those that were not about personal matters – to ascertain that printing the letter would definitely not bother anyone.  The Rebbe told me to include other people who could keep things confidential, so that the work would progress at the greatest possible speed.

“We reviewed the letters in the archive and designated them according to the instructions I had received from the Rebbe.  When a pile had accumulated, I gave the letters to the Rebbe for him to examine them and after the Rebbe approved, they were given to the editor of the series.

“As time went on I accumulated a pile of letters about which I wasn’t sure whether they should be published or not.  I gave them to the Rebbe and asked what to do with them.  ‘When in doubt, don’t print them,’ was the rule.  Although more than 10,000 letters of the Rebbe have been printed in the series of Igros Kodesh, there are many letters that were not printed.

“The Rebbe rushed the publishing of the series.  Whenever I gave the Rebbe a pile of letters, he thanked me for the speed and asked when I would give him the next pile of letters.”

Where there reactions from the Rebbe after the volumes of Igros Kodesh were printed?

Rabbi Simpson responded with this telling anecdote: “The Rebbe once asked, ‘oib m’kocht zich in di Igros’ (whether people eagerly learned the letters).  I said that I heard from my son, who learned in the yeshiva in Morristown at that time, that the bachurim had a special study session for Igros Kodesh.  The Rebbe said, ‘Bachurim? Bachurim farshtei ich, ober vos tut zich mit yungelait (Bachurim, I understand, but what about the married men)?’

“In the Rebbe’s teachings in general and in the Igros Kodesh in particular, we see the ‘I have written myself into it and given it,’ how the Rebbe put his entire essence into his writings.  After 3 Tammuz, the Igros Kodesh took on greater meaning of the wondrous connection between the Rebbe and the people of the generation.  This is one of the ways that the Rebbe continues to direct and bless all who turn to him.”

THE REBBE’S INVOLVEMENT IN THE SMALL DETAILS

Besides for the involvement with the Rebbe’s correspondence, Rabbi Simpson had other duties. One was the Rebbe’s discrete Tzedaka distributions. In this interview he told us about this:

Distributing stipends to needy families in the early years was something done only before Pesach, as Maos Chitim.  In later years, the Rebbe said money should be given also before Tishrei.  Earlier on, the gabbai of the 770 shul, R’ Moshe Pinchas Katz a’h was in charge of preparing the list.  In later years, I got the job.

“Since this was a sensitive matter, I don’t want to talk about it.  I will only make this general statement: The Rebbe asked for a list of the needy and each time he said to increase the amount over the previous time.  The Rebbe asked several times whether there were additional families in need and asked that more families be added to the list.

“After I prepared the checks (issued by Machne Israel), on each of which it said, ‘by order of the Rebbe shlita,’ I gave all the checks to the Rebbe and then the Rebbe said they could be sent to the recipients.”

The Rebbe Thanked Every Time

Reb Sholom Mendel also drove the Rebbe to his house and to the Ohel for years. When inquired about this, all he had to say was this:

“What was said in the car is not pertinent to the public.  I will say that the Rebbe always thanked me, after each trip.”

Chalukas Hashas

Another job was the involvement in the Chalukas Hashas, the division of the entire Shas every Yud Tes Kislev to be learned by the participans by the next year.

Rabbi Simpson relates: “As everyone remembers, during the Yud-tes Kislev farbrengen, after the Rebbe spoke about dividing Shas, cards were given out to the crowd under the auspices of Machne Israel, on which everybody wrote what tractate they picked.  Then, Rav Yolles gave the Rebbe a pen and the Rebbe wrote down which tractate he picked which was usually Sanhedrin.  Some years the Rebbe took a few additional tractates.

“After the farbrengen the Rebbe took all the cards and then gave them to me.  I would copy the names of the people onto a special chart with all the tractates which I hung on the wall of 770 afterwards.

“In addition to urging the study of a tractate at the farbrengen, the Rebbe spoke about this with some people in private yechidus, and asked them whether they took a tractate already in the division of Shas.

“In 5752, for Yud-tes Kislev, R’ Simon Jacobson of Vaad Hanochos Ha’Tmimim prepared a booklet of the Rebbe’s sichos over several years about dividing the Shas on Yud-tes Kislev.  After giving me the booklet, I gave the pages to the Rebbe and asked the Rebbe whether he would give us an edited booklet for Yud-tes Kislev.  That is how we got a special kuntres on this topic.”

Did you have jobs in running other Lubavitcher mosdos?

“No.  I was once asked to join a Chabad rabbinic organization.  When I heard the details of the plan I hesitated since I knew the Rebbe’s view that the secretaries had to be careful so that people wouldn’t err and think that their opinion on a personal issue represented the Rebbe’s view.

“I asked the Rebbe whether to take this job.  The Rebbe’s answer was: no.”

SIGNING “IN THE NAME OF THE REBBE SHLITA”

You were one of the only secretaries authorized by the Rebbe to sign, “in the name of the Rebbe shlita.”  When did you sign in the Rebbe’s name for the first time and why specifically you?

“I don’t have an answer to your second question.  It was the Rebbe’s decision and I never tried to understand why the Rebbe chose me to sign in his name on the letters.  Of course, for me it was a great privilege.

“As far as the question when did I first begin signing in the Rebbe’s name, this began in the early years of the Rebbe’s leadership, when before a special date thousands of pidyon nefesh would come from Chassidim all over the world.  The Rebbe told me to respond to each one of them, acknowledging receipt of their p’n.

“It was a large number of pan’im and as the years went by, the number grew to thousands throughout the year.

“After a few years, the Rebbe told me to sign ‘in the name of the Rebbe shlita,’ on personal letters that the Rebbe wrote.”

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN “CHASHAI” AND “SODI”

Rumor has it that there were letters that said “sodi” or “chashai” on them.  Why were these letters designated as secret when every personal letter was meant solely for the person it was written to?

“With the Rebbe’s guidance, the secretaries were extremely careful about being discreet, especially in sending letters to individuals and to mosdos.  However, when it was extremely personal, the Rebbe asked us to be particularly careful regarding the privacy of the letter and then the Rebbe marked the answer with the letter ‘ches’ for the word ‘chashai.’”

“The word ‘sodi’ signified an even higher level of confidentiality, far more than ‘chashai.’ When the Rebbe marked a letter ‘sodi,’ it meant that even the recipient could not keep the letter.  In the margin of the letter it said that after reading the letter the original had to be returned to the secretariat!”

PERSONAL LETTERS

The Rebbe’s letters were typed.  Did you consider using a computer?

“In the beginning of the 80’s when large offices in the US began using computers, we raised the idea of computerizing the sending of correspondence.  I asked the Rebbe about this and the Rebbe did not like the idea.  Apparently it was important to the Rebbe to give each person who received an answer a personal touch and not a letter that was printed on a computer.

“By the way, it’s important to note that every letter from the Rebbe, whether with the Rebbe’s signature or a secretary’s signature, and even letters that went out in the name of the secretariat — were not sent out until the Rebbe himself read them first.  That means that every letter that anyone received from the Rebbe and the secretaries was seen and approved by the Rebbe.”

AFTER 27 ADAR

On 27 Adar I 5752, the Rebbe suffered a stroke. Rabbi Simpson describes how the Rebbe’s work continued even then:

“In response to the secretaries [inquiry], the Rebbe instructed that letters wishing mazal tov for the simchos of Chassidim and the like continue to be sent, with the secretary’s signing in the Rebbe’s name.

“I would bring a pile of letters requesting a bracha to the Rebbe and after conveying the contents of a letter to the Rebbe, I would ask whether I could send a response in the Rebbe’s name.  After the Rebbe responded in the affirmative, I would go on to the next letter.”

THE REBBE ANSWERED: I WILL MENTION HIM AGAIN AT THE TZIYUN

Over the years you certainly had amazing experiences.  Can you share some of them with us?

“In general, we saw wondrous matters and responses.  I will give two examples regarding shidduchim.  I once gave the Rebbe a request for a bracha for a shidduch.  The Rebbe took the note with both hands and began moving it around from side to side for many seconds.  It was an otherworldly sight which only serves to illustrate how we don’t understand what goes into the Rebbe’s answers.  The Rebbe finally stopped and gave his approval to the shidduch.

“On another occasion, when I gave the Rebbe a request for his approval to a shidduch, the Rebbe told me to tell the parents that ‘the matter has gone out from before G-d.’

“We always saw things that were beyond our understanding.  Once, a Lubavitcher called the secretaries and asked me to submit an urgent request for a bracha for a sick person, to the Rebbe.  It was in the morning and right after I submitted the note, the Rebbe responded with: I will mention it at the gravesite [of the Rebbe Rayatz].

“A few hours later, in the afternoon, I got another phone call with a report that the sick person’s condition had improved.  I submitted another note to the Rebbe and to my surprise I received the following response: I will mention it again at the gravesite.  This was despite the fact that the Rebbe had not left his room since his previous response! It seems the Rebbe does not need to leave his room in order to mention someone for a blessing at the gravesite.”

Can you tell us of a personal miracle that happened to you?

“One time, I was returning to my home in Brighton Beach along with my family when we were attacked by some hoodlums.  My wife began to scream and the hoodlums ran off.  We knew that they lived in the building across the street which was a haven for young criminals and we were afraid of what might happen next. 

“We wrote about what happened to the Rebbe and asked whether we should move somewhere else in Brighton.  We didn’t consider leaving the neighborhood but we thought we would be more relaxed on another street, not opposite the building with these delinquents. 

“The Rebbe’s answer was: You know my view on this (i.e. not to leave when threatened), may you relate good news.

“Not even two months went by and at three in the morning the neighborhood was woken up by the sirens of fire engines called because that building across the street was on fire.  The firemen tried for a long time to extinguish the fire but the fire consumed the building down to the foundation.  For twenty years afterwards, the ruined building stood desolate. What a few words from the Rebbe can accomplish …”

INSTRUCTIONS REGARDING INYANEI MOSHIACH

Were there any specific instructions to the secretaries regarding spreading the Besuras Ha’Geula and preparing the world for Moshiach?

“I did not receive instructions from the Rebbe about this.  The Rebbe conveyed the message clearly in farbrengens and there were answers to individuals as well.

“Today everything is publicized and it is clear that the Rebbe wants our main involvement to be in spreading the Besuras Ha’Geula and preparing the world to greet Moshiach.  The Rebbe expressed this in a sicha at the Kinus Ha’Shluchim 5752, parshas Chayei Sarah 5752: In every activity that is done, the point should be how this leads towards greeting Moshiach Tzidkeinu.”

MOSHIACH DOES NOT PUT PEOPLE OFF!

Some people claim that spreading the Besuras Ha’Geula pushes people away from Lubavitch.  Did you hear anything from the Rebbe regarding this?

“This claim isn’t new.  There were people who said the same thing when Lubavitch published Ha’Keria V’Ha’Kedusha (which, by the way, I and my family had the privilege of being involved in the publishing) which said the Rebbe Rayatz’s message of ‘immediately to teshuva, immediately to Geula.’  One of the people who made this claim was a big askan (communally involved person) who was a great friend of Lubavitch and even helped the Rebbe Rayatz on his first visit to America.

“In the beginning of the 50’s the Rebbe sent me to that askan in order to clarify his relationship to Lubavitch.  After a long conversation with him he told me that he began to distance himself from Lubavitch after the Rebbe Rayatz began agitating about Geula and Moshiach. ‘I hold that nobody can know when Moshiach will come,’ he said, ‘and therefore I distanced myself.’

“I wrote to the Rebbe about the meeting with the man and quoted what he said, that he was distanced because of Moshiach.  The Rebbe made an asterisk on the word ‘distanced’ and wrote: Based on this he should be distanced from all those who said a ketz : R’ Saadya Gaon, Rashi , etc. [The full answer has been published in Beis Moshiach issue #1165.]

“It’s clear and needs no additional explanation.

“In the sicha of Shoftim 5751, the Rebbe said to publicize the Besura and prophecy of Geula that ‘behold, Moshiach is coming,’ and similarly in other sichos.  This means that today we can publicize the Besuras Ha’Geula without causing people to be distanced from Lubavitch.  Obviously, you have to know how to say it but you need to know that it’s possible.  When you present things in a pleasant fashion and in a way that people can relate to it, they can accept it.

“If you speak with Jews from other groups you see an amazing thing.  In the past, the topic of Moshiach was not on their minds and only Lubavitch spoke about it, but today everybody is talking about Moshiach and Geula.

“The questions that people have about mivtza Moshiach have to spur us on to learn more about inyanei Geula and Moshiach in the Rebbe’s sichos.  The Rebbe told us that this is the ‘straight path’ to bring the revelation of Geula.”

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